With the spotlight on him, Draymond Green operated as comfortably as he does when he switches onto a guard during a pick-and-roll. He flashed wide smiles and offered serious introspection. He made analogies and took on topics head-on.
He won the moment.
“I think as a competitor, if you’re trying to do something meaningful, if you don’t have the mind-set that you’re the best ever, you failed already,” Green, the Golden State Warriors forward, said Wednesday. “So if you don’t have the mind-set that you are the best reporter ever, then you already failed.
“That’s been my mind-set since I can remember. That will be my mind-set as long as I can remember anything — that I am the best ever at what I do. And every day that I step on the basketball floor I will strive to be that.”
For Green, being the best means digging in on defense, chasing down rebounds and initiating the Warriors’ high-octane offense. It means howling at the officials, being completely unafraid and taking on all challenges.
And it means sacrificing, letting others do the thing that’s the most fun — put the ball in the basket — while he fights for the scraps.
For as much as the NBA Finals, which begin Thursday night, will be about Stephen Curry’s greatness, Klay Thompson’s shooting, Kevin Durant’s health and Kawhi Leonard’s dominance, the games will probably come down to the handful of plays that Green and Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry specialize in.
“[They’re] really important,” Warriors center Andrew Bogut said. “Unfortunately in today’s kind of sporting landscape everyone looks at the stat sheet at the end of the game and judges players on what they have in the box score.
“But when you watch a game and you know anything about basketball, those two guys are prime examples of people that affect the game in so many different ways that you can’t really add it up on a stat sheet. They’re kind of the emotional leaders of their team.”
Lowry exists as the tie to the “old” Raptors days, Toronto winning only 34 games in his first season with the team. But paired with DeMar DeRozan and coach Dwane Casey, Toronto built itself into a contender in the Eastern Conference with five straight postseasons trips and five straight years with at least 48 wins.
But contention wasn’t good enough and tough decisions needed to be made.
Masai Ujiri, Toronto’s president of basketball operations, fired Casey last year after a season in which he won the NBA’s coach of the year award and traded DeRozan, Lowry’s best friend, to San Antonio to get Leonard.
Only Lowry remains.
“There’s something about that guy that I just believe in. It’s incredible,” Ujiri said. “We have been through so much and he’s a winner. There’s no other way to put it, he’s a winner. He’s been hit upside the head from every different angle in the world, whether it’s personal, everything, and he survives it.
“Like every day he comes, he comes to win. Doesn’t matter what mood he’s in, like he comes to win.”
It has been evident throughout the playoffs, Lowry hurling his body in front of players while trying to draw a charge and throwing it at loose balls when they squirted free.
Early in Toronto’s series-clinching win against Milwaukee, Lowry saw a ball pinball between Leonard and Marc Gasol and dove for it — twice — before tipping it out to start a fast break.
“He’s definitely the most scrappy guy I’ve ever seen doing the little things, things that don’t show up in the stat sheet but they’re in the discussion,” Toronto guard Danny Green said. “He does take the charges. He goes after loose balls. He boxes out — just every little thing possible.”
Even Draymond Green sees it from afar, saying he’s got “mad respect” for the Raptors point guard.
“He wasn’t always an All-Star. He wasn’t always a starter. But he got it out of the mud and he’s where he’s at today,” Draymond Green said. “He’s faced a lot of doubt. He’s been criticized a ton, this year and previous years before, but yet he’s still standing and he’s here in this moment and it’s well deserved.”
It was almost like Green was talking about himself.
The former second-round pick has been the king of doing the little things it takes to win throughout the Warriors’ run of two straight NBA titles and three in four seasons.
“Coming into the league people would say that he was undersized this or not good at that. But he’s worked at it,” Lowry said of Green. “They said he was out of shape and he got in shape. He got his body right. He improved his jump shooting, improved his conditioning. He always had the toughness because coming from where he’s from, you got to be tough.”
On the way into this postseason, Green shed more than 20 pounds and he’s been outstanding on both sides of the court, averaging 13.6 points, 9.9 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.4 steals while leading the Warriors’ defense in series wins over the Clippers, Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers.
“He’s a different guy. He looks different. He’s slimmer and sleeker and faster, and I think that confidence has allowed him to be more poised on the floor,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “When you’re playing well and you’re feeling good about yourself, it’s easier to sort of maintain your emotions. … You’re seeing the best of Draymond right now.
“He’s in great condition, an unbelievably high level of play and very poised. It all, to me, it all ties together.”
Lowry and Green aren’t the favorites to end the NBA Finals as the series’ most valuable player. The gaudy stats will likely end up next to the names of Curry, Thompson or Leonard. But Lowry and Green can’t afford to have nights where their energy and emotion are off.
They’re just too important as the emotional leaders for their teams.
“That title means a lot to me. But with that title comes great responsibility because when you are an emotional leader, your team feeds off that,” Green said. “And if you don’t bring that, your team usually lacks in that area. … I have to bring that emotion to the table. That’s my job. That’s the reality of it. But yet it’s something that I enjoy. It’s a role that you don’t get nights off.